Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  ‘I would set up decentralized City Connect platforms across India’

Each week, we ask people working in the field of public policy what they would do if they were given a billion dollars to spend on projects. What policy initiatives would they fund, and how would they spend this money?

This week, we spoke to V. Ravichandar, chairman of Feedback Consulting and one of the three members of the expert committee on the BBMP (Bengaluru’s city corporation) restructuring exercise (bbmprestructuring.org). He is actively involved in building the idea of companies and civil society coming together to work with the government on a “City Connect" platform (cityconnect.in). The platform, currently operational in five cities, has a simple goal: improve the quality of life in that city.

If you have your own billion-dollar plan, send it to mintonsunday@livemint.com. Selected entries will be published online.

Here. Take a billion dollars. So, is that enough money to do anything substantial in public policy in India? Why or why not?

It’s serious money to impact public policy and its implementation. In Bangalore, we used $125,000 of private money to showcase a new way of doing roads with pedestrians at the heart of it and reckoning lifecycle cost benefit (Tender SURE—or Specifications for Urban Road Execution). It has catalysed $25 million of public spending on 12 roads based on this principle, with a promise to do another 50 roads, a likely final spend of around $100 million. So, appropriate public policy interventions could bring changes on scale.

What are some areas of public policy that you really care about? Why is it important?

I care about making our cities more liveable around principles of sustainability and eco-friendly choices, both based on citizen involvement. Cities are the engines of economic growth and challenges in managing pressures arising from this growth are huge. Fixing our cities will require addressing city governance structures and administrative delivery mechanisms that are sensitive to citizen concerns and choices.

Indian cities are at the mercy of the state, (which has) a dominant say in its affairs. The international model of cities being masters of their own destiny through strong mayor systems is a mirage. The challenge is to get the state to let go of its considerable powers in the city arena. And replace it with a city governance architecture that has accountable leadership and can align multiple silos of government agencies to get good outcomes.

The city administration is hamstrung by a legacy system with negligible personnel capacity to tackle urban problems, steeped in rent-seeking behaviour, financial mismanagement with opaque reporting practices, a disdain for planning and poor implementation. Citizens do not have a place at the urban governance table. Their voices are muzzled and there is no respect for the tribal wisdom that they can provide to make cities more liveable.

Public policy intervention in the city space is needed to address these infirmities if cities are to realize their potential. Traditionally, in the first phase of reaching out to international investors, we promoted the idea of Incredible India—it’s another debate that we need to be credible in our promises before being incredible!

We now have the spectacle of global investors’ meets where states vie with each other to attract investment. It’s a matter of time before cities, the main economic drivers of state GDP, compete for investments globally and nationally. It’s high time we made our cities more attractive as “live and work" places.

So, what is your billion-dollar public policy idea?

The billion-dollar idea is to plan, seed and angel fund public policy ideas. Ideas, like Tender SURE that can become catalysts for appropriate public spending and policy. Waiting for the government to do the right thing is not going to happen. Our cities need external intervention, but in a non-threatening, collaborative manner that can get the government on board.

I would use the $1 billion to set up decentralized City Connect platforms in 25 Indian cities—that is approximately $40 million per city. The local City Connect platform would be an inclusive platform with leading industry folks, NGOs, resident welfare associations, etc.

The City Connect platform would engage with local and state governments to advocate and engage with (the) government on new ways to make the city more liveable. They would angel fund proof-of-concept initiatives that can be scaled up through large-scale government programmes. They could unleash volunteer energy to jointly work with the city government on local issues.

Cross-pollination across multiple City Connect bodies is feasible and desirable. The annual budget available for the initiative would be around $4 million per city per year, a considerable amount to catalyse change.

Broadly, what can a billion dollars do for this particular area?

Fixing our cities depends on collaborative effort between those in government and those outside of it. For a variety of reasons, it is beyond (the) government’s capacity to address our city problems effectively. The City Connect platform aims to address this gap by bringing in badly needed external expertise and volunteer energy to work collaboratively with the government.

If done right and embraced by local and state governments, it has the potential to better plan and implement solutions for our civic issues. Instead of stubbornly pursuing failed models of the past, this could positively impact the way we do our long-term master plans, deal with solid waste management, plan for sustainable water, energy, mobility, city economic development, etc.

Now, give us a sense of how you will spend this money? Be specific if possible.

The pain areas in most Indian cities are similar, though its relative hierarchy could vary. It is normally around garbage, traffic, roads, mobility, water, sewerage, energy, public health, environment, accessing citizen services, law and order, public safety, job opportunities, etc. Plenty of solution sets, if you will, have been articulated, but they have not found wide acceptance in public policy.

So, the City Connect money will be used to push for the right action by governments based on showing proof of concept. Some examples could be better road designs (pilot execution, documents with specs for tendering), making the case for scaling up public transport infrastructure (local commuter rail solutions using existing infrastructure, more buses with better route planning), solid-waste management (segregation at source, decentralized processing, only “inerts" to landfill), timely public health intervention (crowdsourcing disease pattern from more accredited healthcare centres, labs), water (reducing water supplied but not billed, rainwater harvesting), environment (lake management with community assistance), use of IT for citizen services, government capacity building through training, etc.

Another idea that can be promoted by City Connect is Neighbourhood Improvement Partnerships (NIPs), by organizing NIP competitions and enabling the top 20-30 entries through part-funding and access to experts. We need to build our cities street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, too, while having a few top-down mega interventions. All this needs an enabling environment which City Connect can catalyse.

Running weekend programmes over a three-month period that bring together the government, NGOs and industry professionals will expose each group to the expectations and challenges faced by others. This would over time help level set expectations among the different stakeholders in the city ecosystem and bring in a more collaborative outlook.

What outcomes do you hope to see?

Local city success stories that showcase that the outlook is not all that gloomy. And if we (government and citizens) can work together, magic can happen. The demonstration effect of these local success stories will galvanize other similar initiatives elsewhere across Indian cities. In due course, we could see state governments handing over more powers to local city governments due to pressure from a more engaged citizenry.

What if I gave you another billion? Would you keep spending it here?

Yes. I would extend the City Connect platform idea with appropriate tweaking based on the first billion-dollar spending to more Indian cities. Each city needs to find its own destiny. But access to a larger city network can help realize it.

And finally, what if you had to just spend it on yourself? (Be decent.)

Would spend the first billion dollars bestowed on me in the manner detailed above. The joy from seeing successful outcomes in making cities more liveable is worth the time and money invested!

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